The following story hit me with both admiration for a young man trying to keep his nephews in the family and give them a good life ~ and heartbreak for the children ~ as well as for the young man. Joseph had a difficult childhood himself yet instead of living as a victim of the past he’s trying to give these children what he didn’t have.
Joseph Democko is my choice for “Hero for our Foster Youth” for November. My recognition is small compared to the recognition he is receiving in his hometown as well as across the nation. He deserves all the recognition he receives!
Why would such a young man take on such a huge responsibility?
“I couldn’t live without them,” Democko says. “I hear all the bad things about kids going into foster care. … I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try.” And, he says, “I want to do everything my parents didn’t do with me.”
Democko and his sister grew up in Santa Ana’s Clinton Mobile Estates near the intersection of Clinton Street and Westminster Avenue. Their father, an itinerant manual laborer who briefly worked at the Orange County Fairgrounds, left them when Democko was 6 years old. They lived with their mother, who residents thought sold drugs from the mobile home window, according to Clinton Mobile Estates Manager Vadette Mariscal.
Democko also says a park resident molested him, his sister and other children in the park – incidents Mariscal confirmed. “We sued the mobile home park and sent the guy to jail,” Democko says.
The family moved to a one-bedroom hotel room on Harbor Boulevard, which became home for 13 years. Then the family ran out of money, moved, was evicted and moved again.
“I had to grow up faster now because my mom couldn’t support us,” Democko says.
Two years ago Joseph was a carefree 21 year old young man in Orange County, California. This soon changed as Joseph became Orange County’s youngest foster parent.
His charges: three children, all under 5, one with severe disabilities. They are the offspring of his twin sister, Jody, whom Democko describes as a sweet if wayward girl whose drug addiction, past prison time and whereabouts – unknown – make parenthood out of the question.
Joseph & his boys! photo from Orange County Register
The children were wards of the state. Democko hoped they will not stay that way. With little experience, less support and almost no money, the rail-thin, dark-haired young man with a worried expression but a determinedly upbeat outlook wants to prove he is capable of being more than a foster parent. He wants to be a dad.
A loving heart, not a large salary, big house or even child-raising experience, is the main criterion for becoming one of Orange County’s nearly 500 foster parents, according to the Orange County Social Services Agency. Demand – more than 3,000 children need homes – makes Democko’s imperfect if committed parenthood possible.
From the beginning, Joseph showed a strong determination,” says Julie Akau, the social worker who monitored Democko’s case. “(He) proved to be a nurturing parent who was very interested in the boys’ well-being.”
Democko’s role as a foster parent and his desire to adopt puts pressures on him that other parents do not have. At any time he can be visited by a caseworker and penalized if the house is dirty or the children improperly dressed or fed. Democko knows that his youth – he got possession of George at age 20 – subjects him to special scrutiny.
That was the huge issue,” Democko says. “Social Services said I’m a 20-year-old male. Males can hardly take care of themselves, much less a child. “I said, ‘I’ll prove them wrong.'” That determination means taking on even the toughest tasks.
Chris was the first child of Democko’s sister’s marriage to a man who “expected women to stay home and the man to make money, only he didn’t make any money,” Democko says. Three children later, the husband has disappeared. Democko’s sister, who he suspects is a chronic user of morphine and other drugs, calls occasionally but has not been seen for more than four months. “She’s a very good mother, but she was just too young,” Democko says. “She wasn’t ready for it.”
The original story about Joseph appeared in his local newspaper…it included what one could call, “A day in the Life of.”
The initial reporting for this story was done more than a year ago when the boys in Democko’s care were wards of the state. In September, after nearly three years of evaluation by Orange County Social Services, Democko was allowed to adopt all three boys.
Memocko’s mother, Susan, died of heart failure in November 2005. Chris found her body. The death was “devastating,” according to Akau, the social worker, yet, “Joseph seemed to mature as a result.” Democko put the boys in day care, quit his night job at Disneyland and got a better-paying job at the medical-collection agency where he once worked. His rent increased to $1,575 – more than his take-home pay. He pays bills with the support the state gives him for the children.
Democko’s sister Jody finished a five-month prison sentence for vehicle theft on Jan. 22. In prison, she gave birth to a fourth child, a girl, whom Democko plans to adopt “when I can prepare a little more.” A colleague from Democko’s office is caring for the child.
Democko, now 23, has not had a vacation, a date, or a day off for more than three years.
Despite the difficulties, Democko remains unswayed by what he has taken on.
When my mom died, I was freaking out,” he says. “For a moment, I didn’t want to keep doing it. I (felt like) I didn’t have anybody.”
“But I’m better now,” he says. “I’m ready. I’ve done it so far. I’ll do almost anything I can to make sure these kids are not put in a bad spot. It keeps me going. It keeps me from being what the average person would be.”
Since The Orange County Register published the in-depth look at Democko’s struggles as Orange County’s youngest foster parent, the 23-year-old man and his three small charges received more than 300 phone calls and emails from members of the community shocked at the austere, even grim, challenges Democko faces.
“His story is beyond inspiration. I am at a loss for words for what Joseph is doing for these kids,” wrote one reader. “I am in tears typing this,” wrote another. “I am 30 and have a 4-month-old daughter and have felt at times overwhelmed and that’s with me having a wonderful mom and husband who help me … this story really puts things into perspective.”
With the accolades came an outpouring of offers including cash, grocery gift certificates, clothes, furniture, toys and even babysitting. The offers also include more dramatic possibilities: a new house, a new car, a variety of community groups that want to support Democko over the long term.
For Democko, however, the initial response alone – hundreds of emails from concerned readers that lie waiting for him in his inbox – has been both gratifying and overwhelming.
In less than a week, four letters from well-wishers lay on the kitchen counter filled with – money, gift certificates, offers to baby sit, run errands and receive free medical care?
He has responded to one of the earliest and potentially most important offers to date – a letter from the Orange County chapter of Habitat for Humanity inviting him to apply for a low-rent apartment and, possibly, home ownership. Already a possibility exists – a four-bedroom, two-bath Santa Ana rental for the impossibly low price of $977. The application form lies on Democko’s kitchen counter. “Wow, that’s incredible,” Democko says when he hears the price. He currently pays $1,575 for his undecorated three-bedroom apartment in Anaheim.
Other unique offers include a year of free “Molly Maid” service, a used van, the possibility of being the first “test case” of a new foundation to support foster parents.
Then there are the several dozen readers who wish to nominate Democko for the ABC television program “Extreme Home Makeover” and the one who has already nominated him for a free minivan through the Mini Van for Mom charitable give-away (Democko seems a long shot – the charity concentrates on needy families in the Bakersfield area.).
Small offers are as heartfelt as the large ones.
“I am not rich (nor could I be considered poor) but I would like to send a $25 gift card to Joseph,” wrote Nina Valencia of Fullerton.
“My mom brought this article to me,” wrote Tiffany Mitchell, a 17-year-old senior at Laguna Hills High School. “. If there is ANY way I could offer any help like babysitting so he can get more sleep, donations of some sort, please PLEASE email me back as soon as you can…. I realize I am just a teenager and you very well could not take this email seriously, but I am determined and willing to dedicate whatever I can.”
Democko says he wants to take some time to look at all the emails and letters and decide how best to use the assistance offered.
“The obvious big (desire) is to get a house,” he says. He would also like to set up savings accounts for the boys, take a night course so that he can become certified as a medical biller – more money for his family, Democko says.
Yet Democko expressed trepidation about taking some readers up on their offers. “It’s not that I don’t want it or need it,” he says. “I do want to succeed in life and make sure my kids are taken care of but I don’t want everything given to me.”
“I don’t even know how to express my appreciation,” Democko says of the offers of assistance he has received. “I’m afraid of what if I don’t say thank you enough?”
Democko’s struggle as Orange County’s youngest foster parent was first chronicled by The Orange County Register last April. That story was featured in publications across the nation, spurring a flood of donations, letters and expressions of interest from movie companies.
The July 9, 2007 issue of People Magazine had a multi-page story about this young man and his nephew’s titled ‘Raising My Sister’s Boys’.
“He moved our readers tremendously,” said Joanne Fowler, an associate editor at People. “We received hundreds of e-mails and letters from people who were so overwhelmed by his commitment and his love for these three boys. I think he’s a perfect hero really.”
The magazine features him again this week (October 26th edition) as one of its five heroes of the year. His story will be told on CBS’s “The Early Show” and he will be feted at a Beverly Hills luncheon on Nov. 8, the magazine announced.
Democko has collected more than $35,000 in donations. His rent and groceries are being paid this year by assorted well-wishers. An Orange County foundation has “adopted” him and his boys. He and his boys will fly to New York to appear on “The Rachael Ray Show” on Nov. 10.
“I’m still overwhelmed,” Democko said Friday. “I’m still in awe over the whole thing. I’m freaking out because we get to go to New York, and I’ve always wanted to go to New York. I’m more than excited. I’m still kind of like, ‘huh? What?’ Now you realize how many people are out there that really care. It makes me want to do more not just for my kids but for others.”
To read the People magazine “Heroes Among Us” story:
Joseph & 2 of his boys, photo from People Magazine